Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker. His mother died shortly after his birth, his father abandoned him about a decade later, and his upbringing was haphazard. At 16 he set out on a wandering, irregular life that brought him into contact (c.1728) with Louise de Warens, who became his patron and later his lover. She arranged for his trip to Turin, where he became an unenthusiastic Roman Catholic convert. After serving as a footman in a powerful family, he left Turin and spent most of the next dozen years at Chambéry, Savoy, with his patron. In 1742 he went to Paris to make his fortune with a new system of musical notation, but the venture failed. Once in Paris, however, he became an intimate of the circle of Denis Diderot (to whose Encyclopédie Rousseau contributed music articles), Melchior Grimm, and Mme d'Épinay. At this time also began his liaison with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semiliterate servant who became his common-law wife.
In 1749, Rousseau won first prize in a contest, held by the Academy of Dijon, on the question: "Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct?" Rousseau took the negative stand, contending that humanity was good by nature and had been fully corrupted by civilization. His essay made him both famous and controversial. Although it is still widely believed that all of Rousseau's philosophy was based on his call for a return to nature, this view is an oversimplification, caused by the excessive importance attached to this first essay. A second philosophical essay, Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité des hommes (1754), is one of Rousseau's most mature and daring productions. After its publication, Rousseau returned to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism in order to regain his citizenship, and returned to Paris with the title "citizen of Geneva."
Mme d'Épinay lent him a cottage, the Hermitage, on her estate at Montmorency. But Rousseau began to quarrel with Mme d'Épinay, Diderot, and Grimm, all of whom he accused of complicity in a sordid plot against him, and left the Hermitage to become the guest of the tolerant duc de Luxembourg, whose château was also at Montmorency. There he finished his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), written in part under the influence of his love for Mme d'Houdetot, the sister-in-law of Mme d'Épinay; his Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), a diatribe against the suggestion that Geneva would be better off for having a theater; his Du contrat social (1762); and his Émile (1762), which offended both the French and Genevan ecclesiastic authorities and was burned at Paris and at Geneva.
Rousseau, with the connivance of highly placed friends, escaped, however, to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, then a Prussian possession. His house was stoned, and Rousseau fled once more, this time to the canton of Bern, settling on the small island of Saint-Pierre, in the Lake of Biel. In 1765 he was expelled from Bern and accepted the invitation of David Hume to live at his house in England; there he began to write the first part of his Confessions, but after a year he quarreled violently with Hume, whom he believed to be in league with Diderot and Grimm, and returned to France (1767). His suspicion of people deepened and became a persecution mania.
After wandering through the provinces, he finally settled (1770) at Paris, where he lived in a garret and copied music. The French authorities left him undisturbed, while curious foreigners flocked to see the famous man and be insulted by him. At the same time he went from salon to salon, reading his Confessions aloud. In his last years he began Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, descriptions of nature and his feeling about it, which was unfinished at the time of his death. Shortly before his death Rousseau moved to the house of a protector at Ermenonville, near Paris, where he died. In 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.